by Katie Gile
In 1946, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play “white” professional baseball. As a player for the Montreal Royals at the start of the year and signing a contract for the Brooklyn Dodgers in February of the following year, Robinson was a game-changer who just wanted to play ball.
“42” tells Robinson’s story, with some dramatic license, as he (Chadwick Boseman) journeyed from a relative unknown in the Kansas City Monarchs to the big leagues of the Dodgers. Guiding and often pushing the “definitely brunette” Robinson through the harsh, viscous haze of racial prejudice surrounding all-white organized sports was a Dodgers executive named Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). With a nearly omniscient eye to the future and desire for change, Rickey’s perspective saturates the movie and keeps Robinson upright through the athletic battlefield.
Writer and Director Brian Helgeland’s film is masterfully handled. Imitating the same kind of grace that Robinson himself displays under the outrageous pressure and explicit racism in the American 1940s, “42” treats the subject with tact. While it shows the audience a version of the prejudice and adversity that Robinson faced, we have Rickey and a few good people to focus us on the light at the end of the tunnel. Helgeland’s well-written and edited script is engaging from start to finish and his eye as a director makes every moment count. The characters within, no matter how minor they seem, are given a chance for a dramatic arc. And each is given enough attention to create a dynamic environment for the drama of the script to occur. It’s tactful in its darkest moments and a thrilling delight in triumph.
Playing Jackie Robinson in a breakout role is Chadwick Boseman. As a reluctant hero who didn’t see himself as a great man or the symbol of a revolution (though he was), just a man trying to be treated equally and play baseball, Boseman’s Robinson was humble and likeable. Imbuing Robinson with gallons of dignity and fiery control, Boseman presents the ballplayer as he must really have been. His subtle but powerful performance was electric and captivating, keeping the audience hooked for his every last sly, respectable moment. As Montreal Coach Clay Hopper (Brett Cullen) amazedly remarks, “Maybe he is superhuman.” Maybe so, Clay.
Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey was a gruff delight. Ford’s inimitable on-camera intensity made him a suitable screen partner for the equally intense Boseman in much of the film. Where Boseman is full of youthful energy and anger, Ford’s Rickey is wise, with undeniable integrity. His wily sense of humor and underlying strength made for the believable driving force behind the baseball revolution. And beyond all of Ford’s fantastic, grounded character work, it’s a personal delight to see him don a fedora again.
And playing Robinson’s “heart” was Nicole Beharie as his wife Rachel. Her portrayal of his partner and love told us even more about Jackie Robinson as a man. Her internalization of each conflict and expression of every emotion was intriguing to watch. She, like Ford, is a perfect match to Boseman as a screen partner. She was always feisty, and her gentle strength and tenderness toward him made for a believable and delightful on-screen couple.
In the supporting cast are a number of gifted and noted actors, some of whom haven’t graced the silver screen in years. From Christopher Meloni to T.R. Knight and back again, every member of the cast brought their A-game and “42” is all the better for it. Though a majority of the Dodgers aren’t given much of a back story, the pacing of the film and their existing moments work well. In a film with such a massive cast of coaches, athletes, media personalities, and plain folks, it’s easy to be overlooked. Yet, in Helgeland’s multi-layered film, supporting characters are given a memorable personality in lieu of exposition, which makes up the surrounding energy in “42.”
It’s a grounded, feel-good movie about an incredible man with guts and the change he began. The film is rated PG-13 primarily for racial slurs and adult language. It’s presented in historical context and acts as contrasting brushstrokes in this grand portrait, but is still very present. Helgeland’s treatment of it is honest but graceful, and it doesn’t detract from his well-crafted movie.
"42" The Movie
by Katie Gile